Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, Purdue 24

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For those hoping that Notre Dame would use Saturday night as a sparring session against an outmanned Purdue team, it took just 12 plays to know that this wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Dreams of getting freshmen playing time and defenders stats by the bushel came crashing to a halt as Purdue took it to the No. 21 Fighting Irish for much of the first half, before Notre Dame pulled away late to win 31-24.

After getting smacked in the nose by Cincinnati and barely beating Indiana State, this game didn’t look like it’d be much on paper, with Purdue a hefty three touchdown underdog. But the Boilermakers came out of the gates sprinting, putting together an impressive first half, dominating the stat sheet and taking a lead into halftime with the Irish offense faltering and the defense a step behind and lucky to be down by just a touchdown.

But after some halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball, Tommy Rees and DaVaris Daniels put together a prolific game, while the defense buzzed Purdue quarterback Rob Henry, all but icing the game when senior cornerback Bennett Jackson returned an interception 34-yards for a touchdown.

A win is a win is a win. But Saturday night’s victory accentuated the difference between this football team and last year’s edition, with the defense once again struggling to play the type of fundamental defense that was a bedrock for Bob Diaco’s unit. But the Irish shrugged off a slow start, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to win 31-24, scoring four touchdowns in the second half after being stymied for the game’s first 30 minutes.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s hard fought 31-24 victory in West Lafayette.

***

With no true pass rush to speak of, the Irish need to find a way to get off the field on third down. 

We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the Irish’s fearsome front seven. But stats eventually tell the story and Notre Dame’s trio of All-American caliber players, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo have a whopping one sack between the three of them after a quarter of the regular season.

The hallmark of Bob Diaco’s defense will never be rushing the passer, but eventually the Irish are going to need to be able to dial up a pass rush without selling the farm and putting their secondary in man coverage. And while Tuitt got a sack against Temple when head coach Matt Rhule said he gambled by taking on the All-American defensive end one-on-one, this defense desperately needs more out of its star defensive end, who has tallied just one tackle in the past two games.

Nix is playing great football, with the senior nose guard taking on constant double teams while plugging the middle of the field. But Shembo and Tuitt have yet to get on track, with Tuitt a step slow on a number of pass rush opportunities while Shembo seems to be spending a lot of time in pass coverage. (The last time we saw that it was a wasted season for Shembo, who as a sophomore struggled in space while manning the Dog linebacker position.)

The lack of pass rush was apparent for most of the first half, when Purdue converted some tough third downs that just didn’t happen last season. The Irish gave up four conversions of third and seven or longer in the game’s first 30 minutes, lucky to get out of the first half down by just one score.

Even when the Irish defense buckled down there were still some head-scratching conversions, none more so than the 4th and 7 conversion that resulted in a touchdown that got Purdue back within one score in the fourth quarter. With three Irish defenders dropping into zone coverage, Henry had to unload his throw early. But KeiVarae Russell watched tight end Justin Sinz catch a nine yard touchdown in front of him, pulling Purdue back into the game.

That type of defense can’t happen if the Irish want to be a BCS team. After allowing Purdue to convert 7 of 16 third downs and the Irish getting their only sack by Bennett Jackson on a broken play, it’s time for this group to figure out a way to get after the quarterback and get off of the field.

***

For much of the first half, the Irish were their own worst enemy on offense, refusing to stretch the field. 

Nobody will believe that Tommy Rees can throw the ball down the field if Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin don’t either. And that’s what happened for most of the first half as the Irish offense stifled itself, refusing to stretch the field vertically while allowing Purdue to jam the box, play tight on their receivers, and shut down an offense that was supposed to roll.

It wasn’t all playcalling that made things tough on Notre Dame. The Irish dropped four passes in the first half, with Troy Niklas, Amir Carlisle and DaVaris Daniels doing Tommy Rees no favors as they failed to make some routine plays. But with Purdue unafraid of the Irish trying to beat them over the top, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson made running the football mighty tough for Notre Dame, with the Irish averaging a mediocre 2.5 yards a carry against a team that gave up 221 rushing yards to Cincinnati. They also were routinely blowing up the Irish screen game, nearly intercepting a few throws as their defenders went all-in stopping the short passing game.

Rees hit Chris Brown for a beautiful long strike for 40-yards in the second quarter. But it took an acrobatic catch by TJ Jones on the Irish’s first drive of the third quarter for the Irish to consistently challenge Purdue down field, which they did for much of the second half.

Only after stretching the Purdue defense were the Irish able to get some offensive flow going, with Daniels playing his best game in an Irish uniform, leading the team with eight catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with the highlight being a go route Daniels caught in stride and then tip-toed the sideline while stiff-arming Ricardo Allen away for an 82-yard touchdown. But it shouldn’t take two quarters to remember that this team can strike down the field, and Rees has shown a much better touch downfield than he’s had in the past.

***

While using a lot of personnel is a good thing, being predictable certainly isn’t. 

Last year, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly showed a propensity for using different players for different jobs. Troy Niklas was a glorified offensive tackle. Theo Riddick was the Irish’s lone pass catching option out of the backfield while also doubling as the short yardage running back. Calling plays that utilize players’ abilities is a good thing. But being predictable certainly isn’t.

Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell verbalized one of the knocks against Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy at half time when he credited film study for knowing what and where the Irish offense would be.

“They’re doing a good job of recognizing some formations and some tendencies out of formations,” Hazell said of his defense.

The Irish offense was almost burnt a few times when the Purdue defense keyed on formational tendencies tells you that some formations are starting to become a giveaway to opposing defenses.

It’s not just Notre Dame fans that know when Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas are split out wide, it’s usually because they’re blocking. Defensive coordinators notice that, too. And while you need to give credit to Chuck Martin for calling a quarterback draw out of the empty set (Rees converted it for one of the ugliest two-yard gains of the night), it’s time for the Irish to make sure they’re doing enough self scouting.

***

A year after doing all of the little things right, the Irish’s growing pains on defense are quite obvious. 

That the Irish defense isn’t the dominating group that most expected is a surprise. But on second thought, maybe it shouldn’t be. While it’s easy to point to the large group of returning starters, the leader of every unit needed to be replaced. Kapron Lewis-Moore’s void on the defensive front is felt. Losing Zeke Motta as the leader of the secondary is glaring. And Manti Te’o’s absence is painfully obvious. For all the punchlines that came with Te’o’s catfishing and draft slide, his instincts are sorely missed at linebacker.

Kelly talked about the defense’s struggles last week on Sirius XM radio with Jack Arute and Rick Neuheisel, speaking candidly about the transition.

“You know I don’t have Harrison Smith, who’s starting for the Vikings, and I don’t have Zeke Motta, who’s with Tampa Bay, and those were my last two safeties,” Kelly said. “Our safeties have to play better, there’s no question. And our corners have to improve. Our backer play is getting better, we’re playing a true freshman at the outside backer position. Those are the guys we’ve got. And we’ve got to get them better and coach them better. Our front is getting the job done, but we have to play better in the secondary and we’re committed to making sure that happens.”

Getting back to the basics — especially for young players — will be key for this group. Guys like Cole Luke are being counted on to play a lot of snaps, and learning from your mistakes will be important. Credit Luke for not getting beat inside on a slant route after having it happen to him earlier in the game. But after playing major minutes last season, it’s still clear KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley are still learning on the job. That’s fine for a guy that’s playing a complementary role. It’s a lot tougher when you’re counting on them to be frontline starters.

***

A season after riding ugly victories all the way to the National Championship game, give credit to Tommy Rees and the Irish for getting out of West Lafayette alive. 

Selective memory is a wonderful thing. As the Irish were struggling to hang in there during the first half, the groans from the fans grew louder and louder (on the live blog at least). Some called for Tommy Rees’ head. Some questioned if Bob Diaco had lost it. Others yearned for the days of Charlie Weis the playcaller. (Really, I’m not kidding.) But on a Saturday night where not everything went right, give credit to Notre Dame for doing everything it needed to do in the second half to go home a winner.

“We didn’t start very well, but we hung in there,” Kelly said after the game. “We kept playing, kept fighting. I told our team we’re still kind of defining who we are. We’re still trying to find ourselves. Here’s what we did. We played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off. Then we found a way to make some plays, and we feel really good about our kids and the way they played.”

At running back, Cam McDaniel was the guy that got the call, brushing off four stitches to the head at halftime to carry the ball ten times as the Irish held onto the ball for the game’s final 7:22 to run out the clock. And after struggling last weekend in coverage, captain Bennett Jackson made a huge play running back a pick six while also getting a sack on Rob Henry.

Nobody did more in the second half than Tommy Rees. After struggling with the offense in the first half, Rees played a lights out second half completing 13 of his 17 throws 215 yards and two touchdowns, while converting a clutch five of six on passing third downs.

“I’m really proud of the way he settled down in the second half and helped our football team win,” Kelly said after the game.

In the end, it wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. On a day when Michigan stopped Akron on two plays inside the five yard line to pull out a win and Army gave Stanford all they could handle, an ugly victory counts the same as a dominant one. But if this team is going to achieve what it needs to, there’s work to be done.

And don’t think for a second Brian Kelly doesn’t know it.

“We know we’ve got good players and we’ve got good personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to figure out the parts and the pieces and where they go and I really like the way they fought and some of the things that came out tonight.”

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.